Article featured image

Contributor Chad Walsh writes about wine and other beverages frequently for Food Republic and currently serves as beverage manager for the Dutch in New York City.

It’s a classic choice, pairing a juicy steak with a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon. And it’s not a bad choice, either. Frankly, few things accompany a big Cab quite like a big slab of beef. But all too often, people treat the steak-and-Cab combo as the only choice. Indeed, it seems almost automatic, opting for the biggest, most intense wine available each and every time folks sit down for a steak dinner. Mainly, I think this is because that’s the only kind of food that those particular wines exist for.

The opposite is not quite true, however. Just because Cabernet is made for steak doesn’t mean your steak will suffer if you show a little more imagination with the wine selection. With that in mind, I talked to some oenophile friends about what they like to serve alongside steak, provided it isn’t Bordeaux or some international analogue. 

Any red with teeth, from Beaujolais to Brunello, can be sublime. But Dustin Wilson, wine director for New York’s Eleven Madison Park, prefers to go to the absolute south of France for a wine made from Mourvèdre. As a variety, it can often be given second billing to Grenache or Syrah in the Rhône. But in Provence, and specifically Bandol (to the east of Marseille), it reaches its full potential. Here, the legendary Domaine Tempier makes a number of cuvées, but Wilson picked the Cabassou from 1990 from his cellar, which is “dense, animal, and structured… [and] makes your mouth water for a great piece of steak,” he says. Although owned by the same family since the 1930s, the winemaker has changed since that vintage. But at a recent tasting of the younger wines, the relatively new appointee Daniel Ravier had still managed to capture the “soul” of Tempier, while, in the interest of cleanliness, still replacing a big old barrel or two.

At Narcissa, located inside New York’s Standard East Village hotel, you’re more likely to be served Liatiko or Xinomavro alongside John Fraser’s bone-in prime rib eye instead of Bordeaux. Wine director Ashley Santoro admits to enjoying the steakhouse classic dirty martini if she finds herself at the kind of place where one can order a “steak on a plate.” But with Fraser’s preparations of beef, she favors these Greek wines because they are graceful and offer “the structure to hold up to high fat, with the minerality to elevate the earthiness you get from great dry-aged beef,” she says.

Here’s the thing that most people miss: The better the beef, the lighter the wine it requires.

Greece’s biggest advantage has a lot to do with its biggest issues: an economy that has been in crisis mode for years and a U.S. dollar that, even recently, is strengthening. This means that back vintages are available for less than it may have cost to produce them. Softened by age, these vintages tend to be less bombastic than young wines from the New World.

It was Bernie Sun, the former wine director for venerable chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s vast restaurant empire, who happened to sitting at the bar when I, as a young sommelier, was sweating about the early course of a tasting menu that included grilled beef.  The answer seemed obvious to him: “Champagne!”  

After a couple of aromatic whites, I served Grand Cru rosé Champagne in a wine glass. With its touch of tannin, this sparkler was a dreamy accompaniment without distracting from the next course’s Chassagne-Montrachet. I might drink the deeply colored Brut Rosé from Paul Bara, a grower in the French village of Bouzy, alongside a simply grilled rib eye (like the one served at the Dutch), perhaps with a gremolata instead of demi-glace. 

Let’s be clear here: I am by no means anti-Cabernet. But as a savvy diner, you should know that ordering steak doesn’t mean that your wine choice is already made, too.

More about wine on Food Republic: